Touching down in Heraklion, on the Greek island of Crete, marks the beginning of summer holidays for Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis), a trio of best friends who have just taken their A-levels and for whom school is the last thing on their mind. The first thing is… well, the title gives it away. British teens on holiday at a Greek resort means booze, booze, and more booze, but Molly Manning Walker’s debut film has the power to take these prosaic cultural archetypes (teenhood, virginity, youth drinking culture) and use them as tools to tell a poignant story about the ambivalences of growing up, female friendships, and consent.
Amidst a lot of vodka, “never have I ever,” and pool parties, the girls form their own gravitational center and stick to it. Yet their friendship is not without complications: underneath the surface of jokes and banter lies a layer of teen-girl angst, reproaches, and rivalry. The most contested topic is, of course, sex. Right at the start we learn it’s only Tara who’s yet to lose her V-card, even if she never brings it up herself. It’s an obsession––not so much for her personally, but for Skye, whose out-of-line comments and nudges reveal more internalized misogyny than one might expect. Not if you yourself have been a teenage girl, though. In that case you’ve already been burnt in that particular hell of mismatched acts of envy and support.
The film doesn’t have to look far to find a catalyst for the brewing tensions––it’s the next-door neighbors Badger (Shaun Thomas) and Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) who soon end up triangulating Tara, one with his wit and affection, the other by his toxic assertiveness. A lot is left unsaid and the conversations are kept surface-level, in a typically British way, where “everyone is jokes,” but it’s obvious that Manning Walker wants to signal communication’s weight by omitting the very same consent talk that has become habitual for teen films nowadays.
More than anything, How to Have Sex yields its power in the specifically cinematic way it deals with subjectivity and conveys point of view. More than just the shaky handheld camera––with its surprising low angles and shackling close-ups––the depiction of a constant flow of contradictory feelings has such direct effects on the viewer precisely because Tara cannot articulate them herself. This whirlpool of desire and shame is well-captured by cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, but surely not without the input of Manning Walker, an accomplished DP herself. Even if this is a debut-directing feature, her command of the scene is praiseworthy.
McKenna-Bruce is certainly the show-stealer in her nimble command of energy levels, immersion, and detachment. What is laid out in the script as a snarl of emotions attached to unfolding events––whether in a sex scene or a post-sex scene––becomes this electrifying emotional cascade representative of Tara’s relationship with the outside world. It’s almost like she can slip in and out of situations and conversations, and in these moments she is completely, utterly alone in her vulnerability. Effectively this forms a direct relationship between her and the viewer; everything and everyone else feels foreign. In practice this translates to a shrug of the shoulders, darting eyes, wanting and then not wanting to be there, all subtle markers of McKenna-Bruce’s promising career ahead.
A somewhat predictable debut, How to Have Sex is nevertheless a strong calling card for Molly Manning Walker. The film also makes a good companion piece to Eliza Hittman’s excellent It Felt Like Love with their similarly attentive looks at the messiness of first sexual encounters and, most of all, the inexplicable eagerness to have everything happen to you, all at once. Both succeed in showing us, through immersive formal means, the things you want to talk about the most but can’t.
How to Have Sex premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and will be released by MUBI.